Generation after generation of Americans has been hit by a defining moment of tragedy.
For many, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For others, it was the killing of his brother, Robert, or the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. It might have been the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, when victory in both the European and Pacific seemed finally within reach.
For some, it was a moment during the wars the United States fought in the 20th century and into this one. For those coming of age in this decade it surely must be September 11, 2001.
For most of my generation, though, it was December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy,” when Japan bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor with devastating results.
Grown-ups were beginning the march toward Christmas. As I recall, the madness did not start in those days until well after Thanksgiving. Also, most people did not have the disposable income for the shopping sprees that are now the norm.
My family’s custom was we made one gift ourselves for each family member and the children got one pretty store-bought present — a bicycle, for instance, that could be used to run errands.
That December 7, I was lying on my stomach reading the comics and listening to the Washington Redskins game broadcast on the radio. I remember hearing the public-address announcer’s voice echoing the background call for high-ranking military officers to call — or report to — their offices. But no matter how many times I have looked it up, I can’t remember the score of the game, or even the name of the other team.
World War II arrived in our Alexandria home in a very personal way when the colonel who lived next door came to our house. He handed my father power of attorney in case his wife needed any help selling their home or with any of the myriad challenges she and their children would face. Later, we learned that within weeks he was serving in the South Pacific and would not return to the United States until the war was over in 1945.
That one smashing attack united the country in a way unmatched since. Recruiting centers around the country were swamped with volunteers both young and old. One of the not-so-young was Paul Douglas, a U.S. senator after the war, who joined the Marines in his 40s. My father, who was about the same age, also tried to enlist but was told he would be more valuable as a civilian. He spent the war working six days most weeks with many a 15-hour or more day in the Bureau of Economic Warfare.
Washington was filled with people doing the same, as was the entire United States. An army of women arrived in Washington to fill jobs left by men going into active military duty as well as jobs created by the war effort. Factories that began pouring out the weapons and materiel to arm the military were filled with women on production-line jobs, every one of them needed.
All Americans were told they would have to sacrifice. And they did so. Food and gas rationing was accepted. People planted “victory gardens” in their yards to raise their own produce. People bought war bonds in all sorts of denominations, and children got stampbooks to fill up to buy bonds. Children collected cigarette package tin foil and cans and bottles.
No cars were produced for the duration. The auto plants had gone to war, too.
It was a far cry from the prompting that came from the White House after the September 11, 2001, attack: To go out and shop for your country — that retaliatory spending was the best ordinary Americans could do in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York.
The United States was far from a perfect place in the winter of 1941, but it could collectively rise to a massive and lethal challenge to our very democratic existence. The challenge mostly was met without endangering personal liberties.
It doesn’t seem we are able to meet today’s challenges in the same spirit, and that’s very scary.